Chef Ramses has been the executive chef for True North Health Center since 2007. He is the author of Bravo! cookbook, Bravo Express! e-books and The Love Kitchen e-books. He teaches adults and children how to cook healthy meals in many parts of the country and enjoys it very much.
My Personal Story
I never grew up wanting to be a vegan chef, hell I didn’t even know what vegan meant until I was in high school. At that age I didn’t understand how anyone wouldn’t want to enjoy the flavor of perfectly crisp bacon or garlic buttered shrimp. Growing up in my grandmother’s kitchen and indulging in these fine flavors and others alike is why I grew up wanting to be a chef, a real chef. My mind was made up from an early age, in the fall of 1996 I headed to San Francisco to complete 2 years of cooking school. Right after that I moved to the east coast to do a chefs training program for 4 years. Essentially, if it moved I learned how to cut it, cook it and eat it. This process always involved plenty of salt, oil, butter, cream and cheese. It was a great time, I was doing what I loved. After completing my training I returned to California and became the chef for a high end hotel for 4 years. Pizza, veal, lobster, fancy cheeses and certainly lots of wine flowed freely. I put on 10 pounds per year and at the end of my stay there I was tipping the scale at over 200. That’s when the universe began to rattle me.
After the hotel was sold, I decided to move on and start my own catering business. During a class in order to get my safe food handlers certification I got a phone call from a friend who told me about a guy who was looking for a chef to run his vegan kitchen. Up to that point, dealing with any vegan customer meant serving them a plate of rice with steamed vegetables on top and hope they never came back. But hoping to have a successful business I thought-vegan might be something my clients will probably ask for so… I’m certainly not going vegan, but I could further my education. I took the bait and I set up a time to meet my future boss.
He was so enthusiastic, so passionate, dedicated and he truly believed that a vegan diet would be good for anyone. I thought- What a nut case, why would anyone want to eat vegan the rest of their life? To top it off he told me that not only was the cuisine vegan, but I couldn’t use sugar. I was slightly shocked, but I’ve never been a big fan of candy. To be courteous I agree to meet him once more. In our next meeting we started talking numbers, staff, equipment and what not. He also mentioned that I couldn’t use oil either. WHAT!!! No oil, at this point I felt like I was in a bugs bunny cartoon and out of plain curiosity and amusement I agreed to meet him once more just to see how whacky this whole thing could be. During the last meeting we went over more details about the job and the potential growth of the business. It was then that he dropped the roof on me. “By the way, you can’t use salt either” he said. The thought process in my mind sounded something like this: No salt… no salt… no salt!!! Did this guy seriously just said no salt? Does he not know the very first and most important aspect of cooking is to season food properly? Did he really just say not salt? This guy was definitely cuckoo. Maybe he was also about to tell me that I’d be cooking blindfolded or that I’d be cooking with one hand tied behind my back.
My boss is a very smart guy. His thought process probably sounded something like this: This guy seems like a very capable chef, I want to hire him, but I don’t want to scare him off too quickly. I won’t drop the bomb on him all at once, I’ll just feed it to him bit by bit. Otherwise he’s going to think that he has to cook blindfolded or with hand tied behind his back. Whatever his thought process was, he was a fish out of water. No way was I going to take a vegan job, and most certainly not a salt, oil and sugarfree vegan job. Under normal circumstances I would have told him, “Thanks for the offer I’m going to think about it and maybe I’ll get back to you”. But this crazy vegan guy had two things going for him and he didn’t even know about them. One, I am a sucker for start up projects. He was moving his business into a newer and bigger facility and I would be opening up the kitchen from the ground up. Two, I was scared that I might not generate enough income to support my family, therefore a steady paycheck with a bump in pay compared to my previous job was certainly enticing. But the man had just said no salt. How could I introduce myself as the chef to any customer and be able to stand up for my food when it had no flavor at all? I was so very close to turn down the job, but I accepted it with the idea of furthering my education, learn about vegan food and getting out of there in six months; Any longer and I would ruin my chefness.
I’m truly happy to report I have been the chef at True North Health, now for over 8 years. I’m very grateful for all that I have and will accomplish here. You might think this is a heartwarming story and that as soon as I became a vegan chef I had found my happily ever after. But in reality that is the furthest thing from what really happened. I took the job and for the next two weeks I would cook many dishes, then I would put a small portion of each dish aside and add a little bit of salt I kept hidden in a shelf. I would taste my dishes and I figured since all my new customers were not used to the same level of salt that I was, then we were tasting my food at about the same level of enjoyment. To my surprise after two weeks, I no longer needed the salt to know whether my food was good or not. Within a few months I had lost many of the extra pounds I was carrying and I had a lot more energy to keep up with my daughter. I then began writing my cookbook and the kitchen was coming together bit by bit.
This may sound like the start of a great job, but the vegan novelty wore off quickly and a constant war raged daily in my head for the next five years. I would hear my inner critic put me down. Why have you lowered your standards, why are you wasting your talents, why are you here you fool? I would try to argue that I had a steady income, and that I was healthier. But it didn’t take long for me to feel angry and ashamed for staying at a job where I didn’t want to be. Every day I kept thinking: Why am I here, this isn’t what I trained for. Adding to my misery was Facebook and other social media where I saw my fellow chef friends working in great restaurants and making wonderful food. Adding insult to injury were the meal plans at True North which meant from time to time I had to deliver plates of steamed vegetables or the occasional baked yam. Many people would greet me with great joy and they would tell me how wonderful I was and that I was changing and even saving their lives. And as great a compliment as this was, all it did was enrage me even more. Why am I here, they can get any schmuck to bake a yam and do my job, what the fuck am I doing here? On and on for five years.
For the next two years my life became one of gratitude and joy. I discovered meditation and I began to fill my life with positive people and experiences. I hosted a radio show for a year. It was then that I created The Love Kitchen. I learned to be happy and to embrace who I was. I accepted the fact I would lose some of my chef skills as a byproduct of being a happy vegan chef. It may not be what I had trained for, but I was not going to cling on to my skills at the cost of my happiness. Two years later, it all finally clicked together for me. I knew how to be a regular chef and I had also become a damn good vegan chef. I didn’t have to choose one or the other, I was both, I was twice the chef, not half of one. I can now engage in a food conversations with any steak and potato loving Joe and a raw kale salad fanatic at the same time. This is something no regular or vegan chefs that I know can do. I am a happy man who has found his purpose in life. I can cook tasty regular food and I can also cook delicious and healthy vegan food. I can give almost anyone, ideas on how to eat healthier, no matter what kind of diet they follow and thus I can help them improve their life. And now I hope cheframses.com can help me reach out to more and more people who want to eat healthier.